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Clark County to pay $60,000 for violating state public records law

As reported by The Columbian last month, one of our criminal defense attorneys had success as a civil litigant: A Clark County Superior Court judge ordered the county to pay attorney Neil Anderson $35,000 after finding the Clark County Sheriff's Office violated the state's public records law.

Anderson, who received his money this week, was represented by Vancouver attorney Greg Ferguson. After being ordered by Judge Robert Lewis to pay Ferguson's legal fees, the county agreed to pay him $25,000.

So in total, that's $60,000 the county has to pay for what Lewis described as "gross negligence" on the part of the sheriff's office. 

As reported by The Columbian's Katie Gillespie, Anderson filed a request for county records to support a Washington State Bar Association complaint against Jeff Holmes, who was working as a Clark County deputy prosecutor in 2012 when he was charged with patronizing a prostitute. 

Holmes, who now has a private practice, successfully completed a diversion program for first-time offenders and the charges were later dismissed. 

From Gillespie's Jan. 14 article: 

“I had concerns that he had been treated far more favorably than the average citizen,” Anderson wrote in a declaration. “Especially in light of his position of public trust as prosecutor trying domestic violence cases.”

The county provided Anderson with records in four installments after he made his request in 2012, according to court records. A fourth and heavily redacted installment, however, was delayed until February 2013, three weeks after Anderson sued to force the sheriff’s office to produce the records, according to a memorandum filed by Ferguson.

The sheriff’s office argued in its initial redaction log that those documents contained personal information that would represent an invasion of Holmes’ privacy if they were released. It wasn’t until September 2014 that the sheriff’s office reversed course and released that piece to Anderson without redactions.

“One of those pieces had some fairly salacious type details in it about (Holmes),” said Chief Steve Shea, who oversees records for the sheriff’s office. “There was a delay because he had the right to seek an injunction.”

But Clark County Superior Court Judge Robert Lewis’ court order says there was no sign that Holmes or the Clark County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office filed a protective order to block the reports from being released, and the sheriff’s office did not offer any more legal reason to withhold the remaining records. Furthermore, according to the order, the redacted material was not covered by the Public Records Act’s right of privacy exemption.

The judge did not find the sheriff’s office had acted in bad faith, as Ferguson and Anderson accused the county of, but that the personal relationship between county officials shows the county’s “noncompliance was caused by more than mere negligence.”

“The agency’s actions were grossly negligent, and reckless with regard to the rights of the public to access these materials,” Lewis’ order says.

Lewis found the county failed to comply with the Public Records Act for 591 days, and ordered Clark County to pay $60 per day for a total penalty of $35,460, according to the order.

Tags: civil law, public records, Clark County

Jeffrey D. Barrar, P.S.: Vancouver Defenders Jeffrey D. Barrar, P.S.
Vancouver Defenders